Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr. and America's Moral Attitudes

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Had he not been assassinated in 1968, King would have turned 85 today. On Monday we will formally celebrate the day of his birth, but I wanted to say a few words before next week's adoration. On a holiday devoted to a martyr and inspirational leader, it's hard to cut through the clutter and the passionate tributes. Though I appreciate King's genius and ability, I've sought to keep a realistic perspective. If you will, I seek to bury King, not necessarily to praise him.

Past Quaker Meetings for Worship prior to the holiday have been a room full of starry-eyed tributes. Regardless of what some might call the moral arc of justice, I mostly believe that we bet on the right horse. Liberals aimed for the moral high ground and, much to our credit, we achieved our objective. Though celebration is in order, reducing a complicated man with a complicated legacy to a victory lap helps no one.

King's detractors have always brought up his history of marital infidelity. They have also pointed to evidence of plagiarism in his academic research papers, his doctoral dissertation, and his speeches. For figures in the public eye, no personal life is safe from scrutiny. MLK, Jr. was considered dangerous by notoriously paranoid FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and it is from this surveillance that allegations of skirt-chasing have surfaced.

Over time, King's inner circle has provided at least a partially sanitized version for public consumption. I find we can more easily forgive and rationalize extramarital affairs if they happen to someone we don't know personally. If they are present in a husband, wife, mother, or father, the pain and psychological damage are real. I've written before about my maternal grandfather, who was an incurable womanizer. Regardless of how you spin it out, his behavior created substantial problems for the entire family. It caused some of his children to have issues with trust and intimacy in their own lives, with their own partners.

Every human life exists in shades of grey. For convenience sake, we like to believe life is all one way or all another. Puritanical attitudes continue to guilt and shame us into falling in line. It's fashionable for Americans to point to French perspectives towards the matter of infidelity. They are far more private than we are and, for them, cheating isn't a big deal. Men cheat. Politicians cheat. That's just how men are.

That hasn't stopped the latest sex scandal involving President Francois Hollande, but the French people have a more live-and-let live attitude.

And do the French care? Well, according to a poll published in the Journal du Dimanche, 77% of respondents said the affair was a personal matter. And 84% said it had done nothing to change their opinion of Hollande.

In contrast, this country has gone as far as impeaching a President for having a dalliance with a younger woman. To be fair, infidelity was only part of the reason why. Some of it was retribution for Richard Nixon and Watergate. Much of it was purely politics, though many Republicans played pious for the cameras. No one really wanted to reform Capitol Hill culture, where affairs outside of marriage have been plentiful from the beginning.

These are public figures living in a fishbowl. I've called Washington, DC, home for nearly five years and I've come to understand the nature of the tiny Kingdom that inhabits a very small portion of the District of Columbia. Should one work on the Hill, a span of a few blocks contains everything of paramount importance. If one does not work on the Hill, then it's merely a striking landmark one periodically passes by on the way elsewhere.

At times, I'm not sure what to think about Martin Luther King, Jr. I appreciate his strong Christian faith. I am thankful for the way that he used Scripture to produce eloquent speeches that are thoughtful and beautifully crafted. To this day, even secular humanists and atheists who revere King would do well to have at least a basic understanding of the Bible.

This Christian nomenclature is essential to know King as he was and to understand his motives. I wish I could be as nonchalant and permissive as the French, though neither do I romanticize their attitudes. I should point out that their supposedly libertine posture does not always apply to same-sex relationships, or to heterosexual women.

What I think is important, but what we think is even more important. Many of the most prominent political figures of our country were philanderers. Like my hard-scrabble grandparents who lived a life of poverty during the Depression, I idolize Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR died while on a visit to his mistress of 30 years in Warm Springs, Georgia. The facts were repressed for years and not printed under any circumstance at the time.

Part of the reason George W. Bush won in 2000 was a result of values voters who could not excuse Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. I still remember the bumper stickers on the cars of Republican voters. Each was only two words long. "Character Matters." If it had been up to my home state of Alabama, Clinton would have been removed from office. The bitterness that resulted from the failed impeachment riled up and motivated the Republican base.  

Each of us make rationalizations for those with whom we have an emotional bond. I don't find that rationalizations are inherently bad, provided we recognize our motives. We have to resort to rationalization sometimes because our lives are culturally dictated by exacting standards that may never be plausible or even possible. There's no easy way to change the dictates of societal attitudes. How we form our opinions have much to do with us and our life's experience, less to do with objective facts and controversial revelations.

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